The Margarita Inn, 1566 Oak Ave. (Google Maps image)

Several neighbors of the Connections for the Homeless pandemic emergency shelter at the Margarita Inn are objecting to the non-profit’s plan to buy the hotel and operate it permanently as a homeless shelter.

Those neighbors will get a chance to air their concerns at a community meeting from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

Neighbors claim countless disruptions from shelter residents since the shelter opened in March 2020, including trespassing, property damage and harassment. They say Connections has provided little to no response to their complaints. 

John Cleave says his family experienced such traumatic, vulgar and sexual verbal harassment from residents that his daughter no longer travel down Oak Avenue. 

“The hard part for me is I applaud what Connections is doing,” Cleave said. “We have a serious problem in this country with homelessness, but Connections has done a poor job managing its residents outside of the shelter. I’m worried that if their admission process and management continue to be lax, something serious could happen.” 

Cleave and other neighbors met with Connections representatives and Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) in October to discuss their concerns, but Cleave says that meeting resulted in no visible changes and the neighborhood continued to deal with loud and disorderly groups of Margarita residents.

A January 2021 report to the City Council from Community Development Director Johanna Nyden said the city has “a high need” for a permanent 24/7 shelter.

The report said about 70 people are housed at the Margarita and another 20 at Interfaith Action’s overnight shelter, but the agencies estimate about 50 other people are currently unsheltered.

It also said having a permanent shelter site would reduce occupancy costs that now average $3,200 a month per bed at the Margarita — where the goal is to transition residents to more permanent, and lower cost, permanent housing.

Neighbors like Chris Dillow will go to Sunday’s meeting valuing good faith from Connections and city officials.  

“If the right answer for the 4th Ward is for Connections to run a homeless shelter out of the Margarita, then so be it,“ Dillow said. “But at the same time, I believe the folks that are going to be impacted the most by this need to be more involved and have their voices heard. We need conversations, not endorsed presentations.” 

Nyden says the Margarita Inn is already approved as a “rooming house,” allowed as a special use under the block’s R6 zoning.

That could mean it will not require a substantial review by the city to continue operating under the new ownership.

But the zoning code has a separate special use category for “transitional shelters.” That use has additional requirements — including capping the number of residents at 30 — less than half the current number of occupants at the Margarita. It also requires annual licensing by the health department.

The city code does not appear to define what constitutes a “transitional shelter.”

Nyden says city staff is currently reviewing the description of how Connections plans to use the space.

Nieuwsma believes the application will “likely” gain approval. 

The alderman says part of Sunday’s meeting will be dedicated to writing a “Good Neighbor Agreement,” a document Nieuwsma says has worked well in similar situations throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The agreement will outline community expectations and different obligations and responsibilities Connections will be accountable for. 

But some residents, including Don Durkes, remain pessimistic. 

“I’m afraid that the decision has been made and this is nothing more than an awareness meeting,“ Durkes said. “Connections talks about Good Neighbor Agreements, but they’ve had two years to be one and they haven’t once tried to work with us.” 

Other residents share the same concern and worry how such an agreement would be legally enforced and ultimately how effective all this effort will be. 

“I would love for this to be a serious dialogue where we can be civil and come up with something that works for us all,” John Cleave said. But, “going into this I have to admit I really am skeptical.”

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3 Comments

  1. I live less than a half-block from the Margarita Inn. When we had an issue last spring with a mentally ill man who yelled at his demons all night on our corner, Connections worked hard to find another placement for that individual. It is important to remember the larger systemic issues: being without a home does not mean one is mentally ill or addicted, but people with mental illness or addiction are more likely to be homeless because of the breakdown in systems of care that started in the 1970s with deinstitutionalization. Connections might involuntarily commit an individual but he will be released in short order; they could deny him entry, but then he would simply be on our streets. I agree that Connections’ residents and people who eat at St. Mark’s could be better neighbors, especially in terms of littering, but I think that we, the neighbors, need to go into the conversation on Sunday with open minds.

  2. People might want to reach out to people at Lincoln Park Community Services. There were similar issues between LPCS guests and neighbors. They have, for the most part, come to an agreement that has worked for years.

  3. I’m wondering why no one has actually taken time to address the real issues of the homeless and the community not being educated concerning Co-occurring substance abuse and mental health problems among homeless persons: Suggestions for research and practice.

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